William H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matteWilliam H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matter of his work. He writes for this reader, whoever he or she might be, probably never fully expecting to find such a creature. I am the ideal reader for The Art of Fielding. To wit, a Venn diagram:
I'm sure there are others out there, a secret brotherhood of ivy-loving, two-seamer fetishists, lurking in dank hallways dreaming about spring and middle relief. Perhaps that's why this book is so popular -- perhaps I'm not all that bizarre. It's comforting to think so, actually.
For a book that I was more or less put on this earth to read, The Art of Fielding took awhile to hook me. Partially, I felt that defensiveness that we all feel when someone tells us something is perfect for us, or so funny, or amazing. "Well, we'll see about that." I kept looking for the tiny flaws in the book, the places where my own knowledge of baseball surpassed Harbach's. And there were a few such moments -- it seems unlikely that a Venezuelan citizen like Aparicio Rodriguez would be a record holder at the NCAA level, for instance. A player of that lineage would likely have gone from a baseball academy to the minor leagues then on to the majors without ever setting foot in an Intro to American Lit class. But it's a small thing, and for the most part, Harbach clearly knows the game.
What tripped me up more was the tone of the book. It has a nostalgic mood, one that sometimes felt at odds with the book's humor or irony. As I noted early on, the novel felt like it took place in the 1950s but with iPhones. In a way, it reminded me of another great baseball novel, The Brothers K. But where that book took place in the 50s and 60s, The Art of Fielding happens, more or less, now. The result is a sort of unreality, the feeling that the book takes place in a world much like ours, but not ours at all.
Adding to this feeling are the sometimes outlandish names. There's Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish College, the location of most of the action in the book. His name is the first of many Melville allusions in the book (Guert Gansvoort was a commodore in the US Navy and a cousin of Herman Melville's, or so Google tells me). Henry Skrimshander (another Melville allusion). Adam Starblind, Craig Suitcase, Pella Affenlight, and on and on. Even Aparicio Rodriguez, an odd portmanteau of shortstops, seemed labored. It's hard naming characters, I imagine, and I appreciate a well-named one, like Le Carre's, but sometimes these felt a bit too interesting. I was happy whenever Mike Schwartz appeared on the page, simply for his sturdy workmanlike name.
And despite all of this, I loved this book. It started with Mike Schwartz, a character I wanted to know, wanted, at times, to be. It probably stems from my infatuation with athletes who hit their ceilings at the high school or college level. I'm talking about people who can play well and sometimes even dominate at a lower level but are not good enough to go pro (or on to college, depending). They're poetic creatures, these athletes, and Harbach has created a great one in Schwartz. He's a moral compass, an anchor for his otherwise somewhat light story, and the beating heart of this novel. Much like his name, he felt the most real of any of the characters in the book. He broke my heart.
Guert Affenlight, despite his unwieldy name, came to life, as well. My favorite chapter of the book is probably Affenlight's backstory, how he discovers the transcript of a rare Melville lecture that sets him on the path that would be his life. It reminded me a bit of Stoner, by John Williams, another great campus novel. Affenlight finds more love in his life than Bill Stoner, thank god, and when the novel begins, he's fallen for a boy named Owen Dunne, another baseball player, and Henry's roommate. I know that others have had trouble with Affenlight's plot, deeming it unrealistic, but I found it to be among the more moving parts of the book. I don't know how often men who've been straight their whole lives become gay, but I believed it of Affenlight. And his struggle to navigate his love not just for Owen and his daughter Pella but for Westish College, as well, was engaging throughout.
Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander, the greatest shortstop he's ever seen, to come play ball at Westish College, in Wisconsin. There, he molds Henry into a player good enough to do something nobody at Westish had ever dreamed of doing -- turning pro. Schwartz wills Henry to be better, cajoling him into lifting weights, running stadium steps, hitting endless BP. And it all pays off. Henry plays so well that he ties the great Aparicio Rodriguez's streak of errorless games, a great accomplishment for any shortstop. But then Henry hits his roommate and teammate Owen in the face with an errant throw -- the first of his career -- and everything spirals towards oblivion.
Putting aside the issues I had with the tone of the book (as well as the ending, which I'll let someone else decry), Harbach is a sensationally talented writer, and there are more than a few lovely passages. I loved this quote in particular: "The ability to throw a baseball was an alchemical thing, a superhero's secret power. You could never quite tell who possessed it."
I admired so much of the writing in this flawed but heartfelt book that I would recommend it to people who didn't know a thing about baseball. You don't need to know anything about the game to admire writing like this:
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer -- you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability...Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can't be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.
Good stuff, and consistently good throughout. As one of his own characters would say, "Chad Harbach, you are skilled. I exhort you."...more
The film Chinatown is an intriguing assertion of authorship by a master storyteller. I'm not talking about Robert Towne's screenplay, brilliant thoughThe film Chinatown is an intriguing assertion of authorship by a master storyteller. I'm not talking about Robert Towne's screenplay, brilliant though it is, but about the film Roman Polanski made from it. Not only is the film terrific, it's also an argument in favor of the director as the singular lord, the Author, if you will, of a film. Think back on the movie for a moment, and you'll recall that there are two characters that Jack Nicholson's Jake can never quite lick. One is the vile Noah Cross and the other is a pint-sized goon who slashes Nicholson's nose, muttering the classically creepy threat "Next time you lose the whole thing. Cut it off and feed it to my goldfish." Both characters are played by iconic film directors--Mulwray by John Huston and the goon by Chinatown's director himself, Roman Polanski. I can't think of another film in which the director, literally, disfigures his star in the first third of the movie, leaving him to play out the rest of the drama looking something like a clown. If there's a clearer statement of authorial superiority, I haven't seen it.
Martin Amis's Money opens with a note from the author, credited to M.A., which explains that the book is "a suicide note." "To whom is the note addressed? To Martina, to Fielding, to Vera, to Alex, to Selina, to Barry -- to John Shelf? No. It is meant for you out there, the dear, the gentle." What proceeds is, presumably, the suicide note of John Self, a hedonistic English commercial director decamped to New York to make his first feature film, alternately titled Bad Money and Good Money, depending on the day and the market in question.
I thought often of Chinatown as I read Money, and not only because the book is about the pre-production of a film, but rather for the peculiar role that the book's author, Martin Amis, plays in the book itself. In it, John Self must navigate his relationships with the women in his life -- the conniving and beguiling Selina Street, the educated, moneyed Martina Twain, the movie stars Caduta Massi and Butch Beausoleil, and the aloof writer Doris Arthur (as well as a half-dozen or more strippers and hookers). Meanwhile, he has to survive his run-ins with Fielding Goodney, his producer and wrangler of money. All the while, Self's receiving threatening phone calls from a man he comes to call "Frank the Phone" or "Phrank." Phrank has a bone to pick with Self, something about costing him money and ruining his life, and his promise is that they'll meet one day.
As one might in such circumstances, Self, er, self-medicates with booze and cigarettes and booze and sex and booze. At one point, in a possibly oblique nod to Amis's father's most famous scene, Self spends several sentences trying to identify the peculiar feeling he has upon waking one morning. After some exploration he realizes its the distinct lack of a hangover.
One thing leads to another and Self's movie--and consequently, his money--becomes imperiled. To save his failing film, he brings in a writer acquaintance from the neighborhood in London, Martin Amis. Amis completes a rewrite that, against all odds, seems to please all constituencies. And that's when things really go downhill for Self.
And here's where the Chinatown-esque echoes come in. Amis and Self spend quite a lot of time talking about the relationship between the author and the narrator of his work, how the author can only really abuse the narrator when he feels a great deal of distance between the two. Considering the frankly enormous abuse that John Self endures, I found myself wondering what exactly Martin Amis thought of Self.
Of course, is Martin Amis the Martin Amis who wrote Money? Or is he merely the Martin Amis who wrote Bad Money (or Good Money, depending)? And what to make of the fact that Self spends a bit of time reading a book called Money? It doesn't seem to be the novel I spent some time reading, as it's described, loosely, as more of a critical or historical work, like Marx's Capital. But I don't know. We can never know. I will say that Martin Amis, the character, makes out a good deal better than John Self in the end.
Additionally, something really truly strange happens in this book. (view spoiler)[Phrank, it turns out, is Fielding Goodney, who is a psychotic of some stripe or other, and who, dressed as a woman, attacks Self near the end of the book. To boot, there never was any money, and Self has been footing the bill for every flight, every hotel stay, every lavish dinner. Amis figures this out before Self does, though he does seem sympathetic.
Here's what I can't stop thinking about: There's a section in which Amis and Self discuss motivation. Self wants to know why Goodney did it. Why set him up for such a fall? The two have no history whatsoever, Phrank's phone calls are completely without motive, it seems. So why did he do it? Amis replies something to the effect of "In the 20th Century, motivation is often entirely from within. It's completely neurotic, as it were, completely from the mind of the person." He concludes that to go looking for reason is hopeless.
But doesn't this seem a bit like Martin Amis letting himself off the hook? Does he get to explain away a preposterous plot twist with this metafictional trickery? I'm not entirely sure. I haven't worked that out, nor have I figured out what to make of the author's note at the beginning. It's these devices, the strategic breaking of the 4th wall (which Self does throughout the book), and the clever (if sometimes confounding) insertion of Amis himself into the novel that make this more than just a hilarious romp through the tatters of one man's life. (hide spoiler)]
Money has sentence after sentence after sentence of virtuosic prose. Just stupefyingly stylish sentences, one following the other. Paragraphs that stand upright on the page. The book reads like one huge riff, and Self's voice is perfectly realized. And the story was far from predictable. Throughout, it had the propulsive feeling of rushing headlong into a dark alley where you were certain to meet doom. And yet, it's a real blast, whether you're looking for a metafictional mindfuck or just some hilarious prose.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Disappointing, mostly because the bar had been set so high by Baer's previous books, particularly See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in tDisappointing, mostly because the bar had been set so high by Baer's previous books, particularly See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. The first half of the book lived up to that earlier title, with Bob and Dayna trading incredible spy stories. A particular highlight was the section in which Bob brought Yuri, the KGB agent, to the US for a vacation. Yuri, a native of Tajikistan, marveled at the TV in his hotel room, the meals they served on the plane, the Clemson football game he attended. Great stuff. I also enjoyed seeing Dayna's side of the CIA. She had more the action-hero career than Bob did, it seems.
Unfortunately, the book didn't feel like it held together as it should have. It read more like a series of vignettes than a narrative, and as much as I'm happy for them (since they are, you know, real people), I didn't find myself that engaged with their adoption struggle.
If you're looking for a Robert Baer book to read, I would definitely start with See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil. While this offered something a little different, it didn't thrill me in quite the way those did....more